The intrepid Dominic Midgley meets the British singing sensation Rebecca Ferguson. Described by the Telegraph as being “… in the same league as Aretha Franklin”, Rebecca has had an astonishing career securing her a position as one of the world’s most successful vocalists and song writers. On January 8th she begins an intimate two-week residency at Boisdale of Canary Wharf, singing her favourite songs from the golden eras of jazz and soul. For more information and to book tickets (from £30) visit – www.boisdale.co.uk
When I arrive at Boisdale Mayfair to meet Rebecca Ferguson, I’m told she is downstairs. As I head for the newly opened Vinyl Bar in the basement, I fear the worst. Chart-topping divas being interviewed by a journalist often come with an entourage: the PR person to listen in on the conversation and shut off any unwelcome lines of inquiry; the PA to perform all those tasks that A-listers can’t do for themselves, such as picking up a handbag or asking for the music to be turned down.
But when I reach the bottom of the stairs, all I can see is Ferguson propping up the bar having a chinwag with the mixologist. It’s a scene that tells you much of what you need to know about her. She may be a beautiful woman, with the voice of an angel, who has sold millions of albums, but the girl who made it up the hard way, is not one to give herself airs and graces.
I extend my hand but instead I get of a warm hug and a friendly “Nice t’meet ya,” delivered in the Scouse accent of someone who has not forgotten her roots.
Ferguson has come a long way in the eight short years since she appeared on X Factor and was dubbed “our generation’s songbird” by guest judge Nicole Scherzinger. While she lost out to singer-songwriter Matt Cardle in the final, the show got the girl from the wrong side of the tracks a record contract and put her on the road to superstardom.
As we sat down over a starter of stunning Dunkeld smoked salmon followed by wild Highland venison casserole in the restaurant, she shared the story of her remarkable journey from stage-struck child to household name.
Ferguson’s earliest memory is of writing songs as a child and she never had any doubts about making a career in music. Her parents separated when she was four and her mother, who was a born-again Christian, cramped her daughter’s style in the early days by refusing to allow her to listen to secular music. It was not until a family friend intervened that her creative instincts took flight.
“My mum’s friend Jane said, ‘This is mean. She loves music. Come on give the girl a chance’. She came over with a tape that had Cher on one side and Whitney Houston on the other. I grabbed the tape and ran up the stairs. When I played the first Cher song I thought, ‘This is amazing’. But when I turned the tape over and listened to Whitney Houston the minute I heard her voice it was like a light switch went on and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I was just blown away by it.”
Faced with her daughter’s obvious passion for music, her mother loosened up a little and the young Rebecca was allowed to listen to the likes of Kylie and Madonna. By the age of 10, ‘Beccy’ was ready to take things to the next level.
“I used to get the Yellow Pages out and look for singing schools,” she recalls. “Normally it would be a mum that would do it for you but I did it myself. I’d just get on the phone and say, ‘Hi, I’d like to do singing classes,’ and often they’d laugh because there was a child on the phone asking for lessons.”
But her mother went along with it and Ferguson was enrolled in evening classes at a singing school above a shopping centre where she was given her first classical training.
Within a few years she was ready to take the next step and that meant approaching Carleton House, one of the best private schools in Liverpool, which laid on singing lessons after hours.
“It was expensive though, very expensive, so I got a job when I was 13 or 14 working in a clothes shop. I was paid £20 a day, not much money at all and I’d put the money aside and it would go towards my singing lessons. The richest people in the city would go to that school and I remember one of them, Emma, used to get picked up by her grandad in a Rolls-Royce.
“But I had to get the bus home. The 174 wasn’t very frequent and if I left the class 15 minutes early I could have caught one but I wanted to get those extra 15 minutes, so I used to stay to the end. Then I had to sit outside and wait for a full hour till the next bus came to take me home.
“Looking back, Emma was quite rude because we lived in a flat above a shop opposite a big estate behind lovely gates where she lived in a really beautiful house. Despite the fact they lived facing me never once did they offer to drop me home. But if Susan the singing teacher saw me at the bus stop she felt sorry for me and, even though her house was in the opposite direction to mine, she’d go, ‘It’s alright love, I’ll take you home’.”
By the time Ferguson turned 17, all her hard work looked set to pay off. She had acquired an agent, who had lined up shows for her in West End, and she was ready to make the move to the Big Smoke.
But by now she had met her first boyfriend, a builder called Karl, with whom she had her first child. “If I’m honest I was really upset,” she says. “At the time, people weren’t public about having children and being entertainers. It wasn’t an open thing so I just thought, ‘Right, my career’s over now. That’s it. I can’t be a singer’. I was sad but because of my religious upbringing I thought I’ve got to get on with this. It is what it is. So I just put everything on hold.”
Lily was born and six months later she was pregnant for a second time, this time with her son Karl. But she was determined to better herself and trained first as a beautician and then as a counsellor before resolving to make it as a human rights lawyer.
Having never quite given up on her original dream to be a singer, at 22 she auditioned for the X Factor. The rest, as they say, is history. Her amazing voice and – let’s face it – stunning looks wowed the judges and, despite being pipped to the crown, she was awarded that all-important record contract.
Most acts that emerge from Simon Cowell’s talent factory are malleable young artists, who are quite happy to be put in a studio with seasoned professionals and told what to sing. But Ferguson was a very different animal, she had been writing her own material for years and by the time she finished as runner-up on the show she reckons she had written more than 2,000 songs.
“They were very nice about it, but they just assumed I would sing the songs they had written. When you’re a hot ticket everyone wants to be on your record because they know it’s going to sell so everyone was throwing songs at the label saying, ‘Get Becky to sing this song’.
“I was quite stubborn at the time, I said, ‘No I’m not recording it. I am going to write every single song on this album.’ My attitude from very early on was that I knew that none of these people truly cared about me and if it all goes tits up – which it always does – they were not going to be there so I had to establish me and be true to me.”
Salvation came in the shape of Francis ‘Eg’ White, a producer who was prepared to indulge a young ingénue despite a track record that included penning hits for megastars such as Adele.
“When you go into the studio with Eg you actually spend four hours talking and two hours recording, which is how real music is made. There’s so much pressure on the producers because the record labels are paying them money to deliver a product but the best music is made in an organic way. When Eg and I went into the studio, we’d sit and talk about life: I’ve got this going on, this boyfriend’s annoying me, things like that. What I didn’t realise is that he was noting down every word I’d say. So if I turned to Eg and I said, “You know, it’s not about money, it’s not about cars, it’s not about houses, it’s about love.’ He’d write it down and say, ‘Right, there’s your chorus’.”
And so it proved. The words, “No money, no house, no car, can beat love’, went on to form part of Nothing’s Real But Love, Ferguson’s most successful hit to date. And Heaven, the album they worked on together, reached number 3 in the UK chart and sold a million copies worldwide.
This was followed by four more Top 10 albums including, Freedom, Lady Sings The Blues and Superwoman. The power of her singing led to comparisons with the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin, but Ferguson is too modest and grounded to let such talk go to her head.
“When people compared me with her I was flattered but I thought it was a little bit too premature,” she says. “You don’t compare a 23-year-old singer to a living legend. Give it another 10 or 20 years and then, if people still feel that way, I’ll accept it.”
She has also been invited to sing with Andrea Bocelli – “a real moment in my career” – and went on tour with that living legend Lionel Ritchie, which included a memorable night at the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena. On one memorable occasion she was offered £100,000 for a one-off gig but the spoilsports at her record company insisted she attend an awards ceremony instead and Emeli Sande stepped in to take her place.
Then of course there was the time she was invited to sing at Donald Trump’s inauguration ball but, along with Sir Elton John, Celine Dion, Moby and a number of other A-list stars, she turned him down.
Whilst Ferguson’s reputation went from strength to strength, all was not well behind the scenes. “I’d gone from a girl who earned £20 working hard from nine till six, then going to college to study to be a lawyer but still not making much money, to all of a sudden making hundreds of thousands. My whole eight-year career, if I’m honest, has been about constant rip-offs. Everyone talks about the dark side of the industry – I’ve seen every side of it. You’re given an accountant, you’re given a manager, you’re given an agent and collectively they work to take and, because you’re so young, you give.”
A year ago, after completing a tour that generated £600,000 in revenue but didn’t pay her “a single penny”, she decided to self-manage.
“I’m at a point in my career where I want to enjoy it,” she says. And this is good news for Boisdale as she has signed up to do an two-week residency at Boisdale Canary Wharf in January where she will perform a repertoire of jazz classics made famous by the likes of Etta James, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, all artists she reveres.
“I met Ranald (Macdonald, the proprietor of Boisdale) years ago when he booked me for something and he’s just been really kind and lovely and we really got on,” she says. “I remember I had a conversation with Ranald and I said, ‘I’d love to come and sing here’.”
She adds: “When you get to your deathbed, you’re not going to look back and say, ‘I had so many fans, I sold so many records’ – you’re going to look back and ask: ‘Was I happy?’. “I’m an artist ultimately. I’m not interested in accolades, I’m just interested in making good music and enjoying life on a deeper level.”